Humanitarian aid begins rolling into Iraq
March 27, 2003
UMM QASR, Iraq (AP) — The first sizable relief convoy rolled into Iraq on Wednesday bringing water, tuna, crackers and other food to Iraqis, some of whom cheered as they swarmed allied troops handing out supplies. “Eat, eat!” shouted an Iraqi boy of about 10, pointing to his mouth as the trucks lumbered past.
The relief effort had been delayed for days by a sandstorm, mined waterways and fierce fighting across southern Iraq. Three days after President Bush promised “massive amounts” of humanitarian aid, seven battered tractor-trailers entered Umm Qasr, escorted by U.S. soldiers.
They carried hundreds of cases of water stacked on three of the semis, as well as boxes of tuna, crackers, sweets and other food.
“We planned for 30 trucks but we only got seven loaded because of the severe sandstorm,” said E.J. Russell of the Humanitarian Operations Center, a joint U.S.-Kuwaiti agency. The storm cut visibility to 100 yards.
Iraqi youths cheered and swarmed British troops as they handed out yellow meal packets and bottled water. The troops, already in the city, were not part of the aid convoy.
Two tanker trucks filled with fresh water were mobbed by crowds of Iraqi civilians lugging bottles, jars and other containers.
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“Very good, but it’s not enough,” one man shouted. “It’s not enough, only two tankers. Not enough, two vehicles. Not enough, please. We need a good water supply.”
British Capt. Brad Percival said allied forces were eager to win the trust of Iraqi civilians.
“This is the first time the water has been brought to this location,” said Percival of the 23rd Pioneer Regiment. “At the moment they’re afraid we’re just going to drive off and leave them dry.”
“We come to these places for set periods of time. We vary where we go so that hopefully they get to trust us and they know we’re going to be there …. They don’t have to rush. Today is the first time here. Tomorrow, when we come back, hopefully it’ll be less hectic.”
An American soldier, speaking in Arabic, announced the arrival of water through a public address system fitted to the roof of a Humvee, the Daily Telegraph of London reported. “Fresh water, fresh water,” the crackling voice said. “Please take as much as you can in 20 minutes before we move to another location.”
In the nearby town of Safwan, a smaller aid convoy brought by Kuwait’s Red Crescent Society was greeted by hundreds of Iraqis.
Many were young men, some shoeless and dirty, who began fighting over the white boxes of aid as soon as the truck doors opened. Aid workers tossed out the boxes, which disappeared into a forest of grasping hands.
British soldiers tried to keep order, but the crowd dissolved into a chaotic mass of pushing and shoving.
A Red Crescent Society official in Kuwait said five trucks were sent to Iraq on Wednesday, loaded with 45,000 boxes of food, and more would be heading out Thursday.
Many Iraqis have about five weeks of food left, according to estimates by the World Food Program. About 13 million people — 60 percent of Iraq’s 22 million — are completely dependent on food handouts.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned the United States that it is legally responsible for providing relief aid to Iraq and was meeting Wednesday with the heads of U.N. humanitarian agencies to discuss the crisis.
The World Food Program said it would make its biggest single request for cash in its history — more than $1 billion to help feed the war-stricken nation for about six months.
“This could well turn into the largest humanitarian operation in history,” said the U.N. agency’s spokesman Trevor Rowe.
Conditions in Basra, where British troops shelled Iraqi fighters on Tuesday, seemed especially severe. Electricity and water supplies have been cut and many of the million-plus residents are drinking contaminated water and face the threat of diarrhea and cholera.
The U.N. Children’s Fund estimated up to 100,000 Basra children under age 5 were at immediate risk.
On Wednesday, Al-Jazeera television showed residents lining up to buy water at one of the city’s few working wells.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed Saddam Hussein’s regime for slowing the flow of $105 million in U.S. aid by placing mines in the port of Umm Qasr.
U.S. Navy helicopters flew two dolphins — Makai and Tacoma — into the port, where they were to search for mines ahead of ships carrying in relief supplies.
A British ship, the Sir Galahad, moved into the Khor Abdallah River Tuesday night with 211 tons of food and 101 tons of bottled water destined for Umm Qasr.
Before the war, Iraqis depended on government rations distributed under the U.N.’s oil-for-food program. The 7-year-old program allows Iraq to sell oil to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. The proceeds from oil sales are deposited in a U.N.-controlled escrow account.
The war has thrown the future of that program in doubt.
Because the United States and Britain failed to get U.N. backing for the war, Russia, France, Germany and China want to ensure the immediate humanitarian costs of the war are paid by the United States — and not the United Nations.
Annan wants to revive the U.N. aid program. A resolution giving him authority to run the program for 45 days is stalled because Russia, Syria and others are insisting the United Nations must not sanction the war or give the United States control over the U.N.-controlled account, which holds billions of dollars.